Rictus Sardonicus: Mouthpieces and other things
10 September - 1 October 2011
Opening address by Michael Gardiner (Michael Gardiner is an independant historian, currently researching culture in Johannesburg, 1960 - 1990)
Exhibition catalogue available
GALLERY AOP presents Judith Mason’s first solo exhibition since her seminal retrospective exhibition, A Prospect of Icons, at the Standard Bank Gallery (2008). Implied in the title of the retrospective was the notion of stock taking of the way Mason explored the various symbols and imagery in her work, executed in a vast array of mediums, over a long and creative artistic career. In her present show, she adds yet another image cluster to her luminous iconography: that of the grinning, open mouth with bared teeth, aptly called Rictus Sardonicus. 'These drawings/mouthpieces' says Mason 'is a response to a delightful file of rictus tooth x-rays sent to me by a collector friend, Dr Shaun Beecroft, who is a trauma surgeon in the UK. These anonymous images suggested distinct personalities, and not just skeletal heads, as some of them presented themselves as mischievous or monstrous, and the fracturing and occasional prosthetic hardware added an extra frisson to the subject matter. When I drew from them, using the plates and a light table, I began to see that some sets of teeth conveyed power or malice, and when I juxtaposed sets of teeth against or opposite each other, particular narratives suggested themselves.'
The narratives in her new drawings revolve around many faceless character types in what can only be construed as fabulously fabricated plots. Commandant, prophet, artist, or the self, dramatist, reliquary seller, manipulator, are just some of these types she draws into her narratives. 'The teeth in the Commandant are his fighting force, giving effect to his words', says Mason. 'Prophet, on the other hand, is toothless: his mouth is a foul and gaping orifice, inhabited by flies, to suggest the damnation he promises.' The mouth of 'The Prophet' is a rotting trap, containing its own destruction and the destruction of others.
Mason wryly portrays the artist as reliquary seller. 'I enjoy employing humour in art work, along the lines of a ‘comic novel’ rather than a swiftly realized cartoon. Such is my intention in my portrayal of the artist as creator and seller of mandylions. The history of religious relics inspires me, not so much devotion, as great admiration for generations of entrepreneurs throughout the ages who created objects of veneration for the gullible/innocent. Some of them, like the shroud of Turin, possess great gravitas.'
But she also draws herself without a mouth: Mouthpiece. Saying No: a vulnerable self-portrait with the mouth erased, or never drawn, for that matter. 'The mouthless self-portrait' she says, 'is a comment on my inclination to say yes and regret the consequences.' Mason has developed a heightened awareness as an artist: 'Being and artist has allowed me to develop an aesthetic sense. Kierkegaard distinguishes between the aesthetic and the moral sense, regarding the former as licentious, less worthy than the latter. He got it wrong. The aesthetic sense is profoundly moral. I am an agnostic with no metaphysical expectations. My behavior is not guided by a fear of punishment or the hope of eternity or the notion that I am made in any transcendent image. My actions are moderated by this aesthetic sense. It provides the ethical framework without which I would be a barbarian. This is why I believe the arts are important to artists and art lovers alike. I do not kill things, because I find life beautiful. I don’t litter because I find it ugly. I try not to waste, because I find it disgusting. My sense of other people’s autonomy is based on my own aesthetic experience.'
The aesthetic sense in Mason’s drawings is paramount, ameliorating the often ghastly subject matter she portrays.
Judith Mason was born in Pretoria in 1938. She studied at the University of the Witwatersrand in the 1950s, obtaining a BA degree in Fine Art in 1960. Her first solo show was held in 1964. In the 1970s and 80s Mason was highly visible in the South African art world at a time when the country was isolated both political and culturally from the rest of the world. Even so, she was chosen to represent South Africa at the Venice biennale, and at international art fairs, such as Art Basel. In the early 1990s Mason returned from living and teaching in Florence, Italy. At this time her work became part of the South African school and university curricula and she taught history of art, drawing and painting at the Michaelis School of Art, University of Cape Town. Mason is prolific well into the 21st century and is represented in major public and private collections in South Africa as well as in Europe, the USA and Australia. Her public commissions include tapestries in collaboration with Marguerite Stephens for the Royal Hotel, Durban, and stained glass window designs for the Great park Synagogue in johannesburg. Apart from procucing a large body of work over the decades, Mason has published her work in the form of artist's books, sometimes collaborating with poets. She lives and works in South Africa, and has a studion in the USA.